Pity the Madrileño Vegetariano

PITY THE VEGETARIAN Madrileño.png

I landed in Madrid a week before Scrubs was due to arrive.

My grandfather – my Yayo – was excited to meet him, but hid it (badly) beneath his usual gruff stoicism. He made sure the bedsheets were ironed and the pillows were plumped and the blankets were in the press (“por si acaso” he said, as if anybody in Madrid during the summer has ever been in need of a blanket). He dotted his long thoughtful silences with the punctuation of seemingly random questions about this new man in my life.

The first time I broached The Subject, he was sitting in his armchair by the window, his chin in his hand, looking out over the motorway.

“Scrubs is a vegetarian,” I said, tentatively.

Yayo turned to look at me.

“A vegetarian?” He repeated, in a tone of voice that suggested I’d told him something scandalous. He raised his thick eyebrows at me and looked at me as if I’d told him Scrubs had five nipples or enjoyed dressing in women’s underwear in his spare time*.

“Yes, a vegetarian,” I nodded solemnly.

“What does that mean?” Yayo’s brow furrowed and he leaned forward, as if close attention would be enough to bridge this truly enormous gap in understanding.

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I said.

“He doesn’t eat meat?”

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I repeated.

“He never eats meat?”

“No, never.”

“What does he eat then?”

“Pizza, pasta, rice… In Ireland there’s fake meat-“

“Fake meat??” Yayo reared back as if he’d been shot. “Fake meat?!”

“Yes Yayo. Fake meat.”

He shook his head sorrowfully.

“He eats fish though?”

“No. Vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.”

“No fish?!”

“No.”

He continued to shake his head slowly. I could practically see the cogs in his head turning as he reassessed every scrap of information he had gleaned about Scrubs. Eventually he lifted his head, looked at me, and sighed deeply.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I will have to buy him some food. What does he like?”

“Cheese, tortilla de patata, pizza, pasta… Don’t worry about it Yayo, I’ll pick some stuff up for him tomorrow.”

Yayo nodded and turned back towards the window, deep in thought. I beamed, thinking the conversation hadn’t been as tricky as I had anticipated. Vegetarianism is basically unheard of in Madrid, so I had been expecting a bit of an uphill battle.

A few days later when Scrubs finally arrived, he was greeted warmly by Yayo and settled in quickly despite the language barrier. My extended family were delighted to meet him and peppered him with questions as he ate his fill of cheese and tortilla de patata. The second night, after I had taken him on a tour of the city, we arrived home to Yayo looking extremely pleased with himself.

“I bought pizzas. I bought pizzas today! They are in the freezer.” His chest was puffed out with pride. For my grandfather, buying food that belonged in the freezer was a strange and uncomfortably modern activity. “You could make one now,” he said, trying to disguise his excitement at the thought of frozen pizzas being cooked for dinner.

I thanked him and grabbed a pizza from the freezer. I stared at it. I blinked.

In my hand I held a ham and cheese pizza.

I turned to Yayo with the pizza held aloft.

“Yayo…” I paused, trying to decide how to phrase the following sentence without coming across as ungrateful. “Yayo… this pizza…” I faltered.

“Yes?”

I tried again.

“Well, see… Scrubs is a vegetarian…” I trailed off. Yayo’s face was absent of even the faintest glimmer of understanding.

“I know,” he nodded, smiling at Scrubs as if to reassure him that he was accepted despite this glaring character flaw.

“… So, he doesn’t eat meat…”

“I know!”

My eyes narrowed and I squinted at the ceiling as I circled the point, trying not to offend.

“…So, this pizza has ham…”

The confused silence was deafening to my ears. I could take it no longer.

“Scrubs doesn’t eat ham.”

Yayo turned, baffled, to look at Scrubs, who was by now shuffling uncomfortably by the door.

“He doesn’t eat meat, you said.” He looked back at me.

“Yes. I mean, no. He doesn’t eat meat.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but… this pizza has ham…”

“Yes?”

“So… vegetarians don’t eat ham,” I said again lamely, unsure how else to explain myself.

“Ham is not meat!” Yayo declared, looking mildly affronted.

Now it was my turn to stare.

“He doesn’t eat anything with eyes, Yayo. He doesn’t eat ham or jamon serrano or chorizo or steak or fish or prawns or crab or anything like that.”

De verdad?”

“Really.”

Yayo turned back to Scrubs, this time with only pity in his eyes.

Pobre,” He said, which translates to ‘poor guy.’

I assured him that I would eat the ham and cheese pizza, and Scrubs would eat the plain one, and we thanked him for buying them, and that was the end of it. Yayo seemed to understand from then on, even if he didn’t agree. He would periodically ask me to ask Scrubs if he was sure he didn’t want to try some jamon. When Scrubs laughed and politely refused, he would use some of his limited English to earnestly tell him, “It’s good!”

My extended family to this day struggle to understand vegetarianism. At family lunches or weddings they shake their heads as the hors d’oeuvres go by, their faces pictures of distress as they watch Scrubs turn down the non-vegetarian options. They discuss food around him the same way people might discuss their future holiday plans around the terminally ill. They pity him, this man who will never taste the simple pleasures of spaghettis con chorizo or croquetas de jamon or paella de marisco. They pity his poor, languishing taste buds.

Such is the fate of vegetarians in Madrid. They are the untouchables of the Spanish capital’s culinary scene. They are neither understood nor catered for.

Maybe one day there will be Quorn chorizo and substitute Serrano, but for now there is only pity.

*Just to be clear, he has the standard-issue number of nipples and absolutely no spare time**.

**I should probably clarify further and say that Scrubs’ sartorial interests extend only to purchasing (male) clothing that fits him without having to try it on, and getting in and out of shops in record time.

Madrid Memories

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Madrid is my soul city.

I haven’t been there in about nine months now, and I’m starting to feel that familiar ache that comes over me when I go too long without visiting. Half of my extended family live in the city, and I have been faithfully flying over at a rate of at least twice a year for the past thirty years. Three years ago, my last remaining grandparent – my Yayo – passed away, and I worried that this would change things. I worried I might not feel as welcome in Madrid now that I no longer had somewhere to stay. I worried that the connection I felt with my family and the city might loosen or come undone now that we no longer had La Comida del Domingo (Sunday lunch) to bring us together each week.

I needn’t have worried.

I still have a place to stay. In fact, now I have places, plural. My aunts welcome me with open arms and comfortable rooms. They feed me and fuss over me and keep me up to date on their lives as if nothing has changed. I visit cousins who are more like older siblings, and walk the streets searching for churros just like I’ve done since I was a child.

I miss the apartment I grew up in, though.

The loss of that apartment and the loss of my Yayo are completely enmeshed in my mind. When I think of him, I think of him sitting in his chair by the window, watching the world pass by. I think of him flipping through the leather-bound photo albums I’d taken down by precariously balancing on the armchair next to the bookshelves. I think of him napping in his armchair and then pretending he had actually been watching mass on the TV, even though we both knew it was untrue. I think of him teaching me to make Arroz Con Leche in the kitchen, with military precision and instructions that bordered on orders. I think of sitting on the leather Chesterfield in the study, watching him write poetry about his childhood or my Yaya. I think of him combing back his hair in front of the bathroom mirror before leaving the house. I think of him sitting at the head of the long dining table at Christmas, proudly watching over his family as we laughed and chattered over wine and homemade food.

Somebody else owns the apartment now. A young family bought it and, as far as I can tell, renovated it from end to end. They closed off the balconies and changed the windows. Even when viewed only from the outside, it looks different to the place I once crawled, then toddled, and later walked through during different stages of my life. I am a really sentimental person, and I feel a bone-deep sense of sadness at the reminder that things change, and people die, and we can’t always hold onto the things and people and places that make us happiest.

Then again, they say ‘Good things fall apart so that better things can come together,’ and while I throw that phrase a highly skeptical side-eye, it’s true that without the sale of the apartment, we would have struggled to save up a deposit for our own place. It’s true that at the moment, as I sit at my own dining table, I can reach behind me and touch onyx figurines that used to sit on Yayo’s sideboard, and now sit on my own. I have reminders of him and of that apartment dotted around me; the onyx elephants, the silver Mexican plates, the vintage glass sweet jars and the art deco cutlery set.

Some days, I wish I could sit down and write Yayo a letter like I used to, complete with drawings and addressed to YAYO! (block capitals as standard), telling him about my life and my worries and my thoughts. After he passed away we found all the letters I had sent over the years stacked neatly in the drawer of his desk under lock and key. He had kept my cards, my letters, my childhood drawings of the apartment (complete with a very questionable grasp of perspective), and anything else I had sent tucked neatly between his pages of poetry and his bank account statements.

I’m not sure why I’m in such a melancholy mood today. Perhaps it’s due to the sun having disappeared, or just because I feel exhausted, or because I have a low-level headache happening at the moment that I’m about to bomb out of existence with some industrial strength ibuprofen. Lia is currently snoring away on the floor at my feet, somehow managing not to wake herself despite sounding like a anthropomorphised jet engine with sleep apnea.

Or maybe I just have Madrid withdrawals.

There’s only one remedy I know for Madrid withdrawals…..

 

Life Skills Unlocked: Proper Etiquette

eating utensil etiquette american european

Something happened last weekend that blew my mind:

I realised that I have been eating incorrectly my entire life.

But Quinn, I hear you say, if you have been managing to successfully manoeuvre food from your plate to your mouth for the past three decades, how can you possibly say you have been eating incorrectly?

Well I’m glad you asked.

When I was a small child, mealtimes were incredibly stressful affairs. There were a few reasons for this – including the fact that I went on a self-imposed hunger-strike for about two years at the age of six for reasons unknown – but one of the main reasons was that my mother was an absolute stickler for etiquette. The rules for eating were harsh and exacting, and failure to comply led to frequent explosions of anger (on her part) and tears (on ours). Fork in left hand, knife in right. Cut your food. Swap hands. Turn the fork over and bring your food to your mouth with your right hand, tines pointing up. Do not pick up your food until you have put down your knife. Do not ever lift your fork from the plate with the tines pointing down. Hold it like a spoon when you move it from plate to mouth. I mean sure, it sounds simple now but when you’re a tiny child, all that fork-fiddling is very tricky to master.

…Skip along to last weekend, when I absent-mindedly asked Scrubs why he eats with the tines pointing down when it’s 1. wrong and 2. clearly more difficult.

He blinked at me.

“It’s proper etiquette.”

No. No, I said. You’re supposed to do this whole fork-knife-swapping rigmarole. Those are the rules.

He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head. “No, that’s wrong,” he said. “Proper etiquette dictates you eat with your fork pointing downwards.”

I grumbled, and then – as with all bones of contention – I turned to Google to assure me that I had not suffered through gruelling lessons in table manners for nothing, and this is when I learned two galling and frankly disturbing truths:

  1. There is no globally-accepted etiquette for the use of eating utensils.
  2. I have been eating incorrectly for my entire life.

For those of you thinking, “But that’s how I learned to use my knife and fork!” Well, yes. Let me explain. Back in the day, when the British were still enjoying being an empire, this was the proper way to eat using a knife and fork. Some of them sailed to America, settled there, and brought their old-timey etiquette with them to their high society functions in the New World.

Then, for reasons unknown, back in Europe etiquette changed. Someone, somewhere, decided it was too easy to scoop food up with the tines pointing upward and they were wasting too much time swapping hands, so they changed things. Suddenly the polite thing to do was to eat with your fork in your left hand at all times, tines facing down.

Bounce along a few generations, and you have my grandfather, piloting a Boeing across the ocean to New York, where he evidently picked up some new-fangled ideas about proper eating-utensil protocol and then rigorously enforced them at home, bringing us to my mother, who in turn taught us the table manners she had learned as a child.

And here I thought everyone else was just doing it wrong.

When I think about it now, it all makes sense to me. My grandfather – my Yayo – was born in a tiny village riddled with small, crooked houses on unpaved, dusty streets. When I visited as a child, the houses were still small and crooked, and the streets were still unpaved and dusty. It always seemed trapped in a time warp. Women sat outside their front doors on wooden stools dressed entirely in black, as if in mourning for a life that had passed them by. Their faces were nut-brown from the sun and deeply lined. I didn’t know this then but many of those lines were testaments to hardship. Many of those lines were evidence of unimaginable grief.

My Yayo signed up for the military as soon as he was able, and eventually worked his way up from dogsbody to mechanic to air force pilot. Later, he became a commercial pilot, at a time when flying was new and exotic. Short-haul flights became long-haul flights, and before long he was flying from Madrid to New York City.

Imagine the impression New York City’s glitziest five-star hotels must have made on a man who had come from a village in which traveling by donkey was the norm. He probably soaked up the etiquette there as gospel. After all, where would he learn more about high society than New York in the 1950s? At a time when pilots were highly admired and airline travel was considered a glamorous luxury, he learned a lot and he learned it fast. Then he traveled home, arms laden with clothes and jewellery and trinkets, and taught his growing family everything he knew.

And now here I am, with excellent training in American knife and fork etiquette.

… In Europe.

While I admire his efforts, I do wish somebody had mentioned it to me sooner. It is somewhat startling to realise that I have been eating ‘wrong’ at multiple formal occasions for my entire life so far. I suppose I should probably relearn my table manners; I imagine it will be a little easier now that I have adult levels of dexterity in my hands.

Still, after thinking about it, my foreign table manners make me feel very proud of my Yayo and his ambition for a better life. Maybe I’ll still use American etiquette every so often; a private, silent tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

grandfather yayo airline pilot when do i get the manual